Marketplace Scratch Pad

Employee texting and sexting

Scott Jagow Dec 14, 2009

This seems like a cut and dried issue, but it must not be. The Supreme Court will hear a case that could determine whether employees have a right to privacy when they send text messages on employer-distributed devices.

A description of the case from the Wall Street Journal:

The case centers on whether a police officer in Ontario, Calif., had a right to privacy for the text messages he sent and received on a pager provided by the police department.

The city said Sergeant Jeff Quon used his pager to send hundreds of personal messages to his wife, his girlfriend and another officer. Many of the messages were sexually explicit, the city said. The police department obtained transcripts of the officers’ text messages while investigating officers who had repeatedly exceeded monthly character limits for the devices.

But an appeals court ruled the officers had been led to believe by a supervisor that the devices were also for personal use and that the officers had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The City of Ontario countered with this, from the New York Times:

“It is not objectively reasonable to expect privacy in a message sent to someone else’s workplace pager,” the brief said, “let alone to a police officer’s department-issued pager.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, the brief went on, will affect “a seemingly never-ending stream of new technologies, from e-mailing to text messaging to instant messaging to using Twitter.”

The larger question, Judge Stephen G. Larson of the Federal District Court in Riverside, Calif., wrote in declining to dismiss Sergeant. Quon’s case before trial, is this: “What are the legal boundaries of an employee’s privacy in this interconnected, electronic-communication age, one in which thought and ideas that would have been spoken personally and privately in ages past are now instantly text-messaged to friend and family via hand-held, computer-assisted devices?”

The Supreme Court’s ruling might be limited to government employees, but what should it say about this one?

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